Opinion: Did Tennessee lawmakers just enact a county tax hike for schools?

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Lost amid the week’s election hubbub, headlines announced that Governor Bill Lee had signed into law the Tennessee Student Success Investing Act on Monday. It’s Tennessee’s new school funding bill that replaces the Better Education Program, widely known as BEP and something everyone in Tennessee loved to hate.

What we still don’t know, despite the bill being approved by the General Assembly last week, is exactly what this so-called “student-based” funding will do. And how it will play out locally.

It is supposed to focus on the needs of each student and “follow” each student to provide extra money for needs such as disability and economic disadvantage.

Time will tell how quickly parents decide to love this school funding formula or, perhaps, hate it too. Statewide comments at town hall meetings last year by state education commissioner Penny Schwinn largely focused more on needs than what the new law might actually deliver.

At a November town hall at Howard School, parents and teachers called for smaller class sizes, better support for low-income students, increased post-secondary opportunities beyond university courses and better teacher salaries, among others.

A Times Free Press look this week found the new law would increase funding for Hamilton County schools by $47 million.

This means that in fiscal year 2024, the $350 million the state currently pays Hamilton students will increase to $397 million. Of this amount, $40 million will be allocated to the nearly 15,000 students with special needs in the district and just over $27 million will support economically disadvantaged students. In total, schools in Hamilton County can receive about $9,000 per student.

Hamilton Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson declined a request for an interview with the TFP, but said in a statement the new formula would better accommodate every student in Hamilton County.

“While we don’t yet know most of the specific rules regarding the funding formula, as these will be determined by the TDOE [Tennessee Department of Education] and the State Board of Education in the rulemaking process throughout the next year, we will always support consideration of all students and their unique needs when allocating funds at the district level. . »

Critics of Lee’s bill have argued that the billion dollars it adds to Tennessee’s nearly $6 billion education budget is nowhere near enough to lift us out of the pathetic 44th ranking. rank in the adequacy of state education funding.

“At the end of the day, the most important part of a funding formula is funding, and right now in Tennessee, we’re not doing that well,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said. a Democrat from Nashville.

Yarbro proposed adding $1 billion this year and keeping the current formula, but the Senate rejected that proposal. Instead, buoyed by another year of state revenue surpluses, the legislature passed a state budget that takes effect July 1 with a $125 million increase in teacher salaries — the equivalent of a 3% raise – and a one-time investment of $500 million in career and technical education in middle and high schools.

Another very valid concern is that the new law is a thinly veiled attempt to promote public charter schools in the state — especially in light of Lee’s announcement in February that he will use some of the money further to further embrace “Christian teachings” in our classrooms with the “formalization” of a partnership with Hillsdale College of Michigan, a school founded by Baptists and committed to preserving its “Christian identity” imbued with intellectual, cultural and political conservatism . Hillsdale also exports K-12 charter schools across the country.

During his state of the state address in February, Lee announced that more than half of the billion dollars added to the state’s education budget will go to Hillsdale’s “enlightened patriotism” program in the grades K-12 “and beyond”.

The program was specifically designed to deviate from The New York Times’ 1619 Project and to counter critical race theory, Hillsdale officials told Newsweek last August.

Specifically, the new law also provides funds to help charter schools pay for their facilities, according to Chalkbeat. And it “supports” vocational and technical training for older students.

It also does more normal things, like setting a base funding amount of $6,860 per student and increasing it for some additional needs. And it allocates general funding of $500 more per K-3 student to improve reading, as well as money to pay for literacy tutoring for struggling fourth-grade readers.

Which begs the question is-is-it-really-enough: $500 per student is enough to improve literacy?

One thing seems certain: Local governments are still required by the Tennessee Constitution to help fund schools, and the average split is 70% state and 30% local. (The Lee administration has assured local officials that they will have three years of the same local funding “to adjust.”)

Wouldn’t that seem to indicate that the state just imposed a bunch of local tax increases?

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